Informational interviewing is one of the best ways to find out about career paths while building a network of meaningful connections, but most job seekers completely skip over this process. Maybe that's because it sounds intimidating, maybe it's because it's not a quick-fix for landing a new job, or, probably, it's just not talked about enough.

So, what is informational interviewing? It's field research in the form of a 10-30 minute conversation between someone who is genuinely curious and someone who has reached a certain level of success. It's especially useful if you are considering a career change or trying to figure out how to grow within your industry. The informational interview is an opportunity to ask questions about what a job is like and ways to excel in the field. Ideally, you'll have the meeting in person, but if it has to be done by phone that's OK (a chain of emails, however, doesn't really produce the same result).

You might find good people to reach out to by starting with what you know – perhaps there's a company you find especially exciting or your aunt's friend does something that sounds like your dream job. Searching LinkedIn for professionals who seem interesting or well-accomplished works well, too. You can also look to your school's alumni association to see if they maintain a list of graduates who are willing to be found.

One thing that is crucial when asking a total stranger to talk to you is to open by saying you are not asking for a job. And then, during the actual conversation, you should not ask for a job. The relationship you're building may eventually lead to a job offer, but your expectation should be to gather real information. You may walk away realizing that what seemed like a perfect career for you is not actually the right one, but the contact mentions some other position that sounds like it is better aligned with your goals.

Some questions you may want to ask when conducting an informational interview could include:

  • Can you tell me a little more about what you actually do?
  • What are your favorite parts of this job?
  • What do you find most challenging?
  • What do you wish you had known before getting into your line of work?
  • How do you see the industry changing?
  • How did you work your way up to your current position?
  • What suggestions would you have for someone just starting out / looking to get to the next level?
  • Are there any industry-specific books or publications you would recommend?
  • Who else should I talk to?

That last question is very useful, as it positions you to contact your next person as a referral and helps lay the groundwork for a true network of interconnected successful people. Reaching out to another person is also an immediately actionable step you can take to keep the momentum going.

After you've had your informational interview, be sure to follow up with a note thanking the person for sharing their time and expertise. If it was someone who you would like to remain in contact with, follow up again approximately one month later by telling them how you used their advice.

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